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Encouraging reading


Encouraging reading is a general introduction to some important aspects of how children develop their literacy and reading skills.

It aims to raise your awareness of some of the main issues in:

  • How children learn to read
  • How you as a teaching assistant can encourage children to enjoy reading and improve their literacy skills.

Initiatives from the Welsh Books Council ( like the Summer Reading Challenge and the Quick Reads series of books highlight the benefits of early support with reading.

Links to further information/ relevant projects to help promote reading for pleasure

Organisations: reading for pleasure

The Welsh Government published its National Literacy Programme in May 2012, describing it as ‘a national programme to drive up literacy standards in our schools’ and setting out ‘actions the Welsh Government and its partners need to take to achieve a step change in literacy standards over the next 5 years’. The Minister, in his statement, said that it would require ‘every school in Wales to focus on the development of literacy skills’.

It is not only parents who can offer this early vital support, but also teachers, teaching assistants and the range of other learning support workers. Often, teaching assistants working in a one-to-one relationship with a child are in a much stronger position to read with them or listen to their reading.

This section consists of three topics:

  1. Babies and the early years
  2. Moving from the early years to primary
  3. Boys, girls and reading.

They cover the different stages of child development and some of the ways you can encourage reading and literacy in each of these stages, from the early years to young people in secondary schools

Learning outcomes

By completing this section and the associated quiz, you will:

  • gain an insight into the varying perspectives on reading and how it is taught, in relation to children from early years through to secondary school

  • develop an understanding of the ‘reading gap’ and why there is a ‘gender gap’ in reading, and consider the implications for practice.

1 Babies and the early years

To understand literacy skills, we would like you to start by thinking about how babies learn to communicate.

Described image
Figure 1 A baby using sign language

It is well known that babies want to communicate with other people and they move quickly from communicating through crying and making noises to saying recognisable words. The following extract taken from the Words for Life website shows how quickly babies move on from those initial communications to saying their first word, then on to speaking their first sentence.

Baby and toddler communication milestones

‘Look at me copying you.’

From birth I will make eye contact and copy your expressions. This is one of the first ways in which I learn to communicate.

‘My first smile.’

Around six weeks I may smile for the first time.

‘My first laugh.’

Between three and six months I will probably start laughing. Hearing my infectious laughter will help us bond even more and make it more rewarding to talk and interact with me.

‘Mummy, look at me!’

At around six months I will start using noises to get your attention; coos or gurgles.

‘Ma ma ma, Da da da’

Around eight months I will probably start to babble. The repetitive noises I make are the beginnings of speech and give me the chance to exercise my mouth.

‘Did you say my name?’

Around eight or nine months I will begin to recognise and respond to my name.

‘My first word!’

At around 12 months I may say my first word. And by 13 months I may be using up to six words.

‘I’ve reached 50 words!’

At around 18 months I will have increased my vocabulary to about 50 words. This is a time in my life where you may notice an explosion in my vocabulary; it’s an exciting time for me as I quickly add more and more words.

‘My first sentence!’

At some point between the ages of 18 and 24 months I will put together my first sentence. It may not be grammatically correct or easy to understand but it’s a very important part of my language development. Remember to keep reading, talking and interacting with your child as this will help them continue to expand their vocabulary and their understanding of grammar, words and language.

(Adapted from Words for Life, nd)

Interaction with adults is an important stage in the development of a baby’s communication skills. 

Studies have identified five specific ways in which parents talked to children. These had the most positive impact on the children’s development, and their long-term verbal ability:

  • they just talked, generally using a wide vocabulary as part of daily life
  • they tried to be nice, expressing praise and acceptance and few negative commands
  • they told children about things, using language with a high information content
  • they gave children choices, asking them their opinion rather than simply telling them what to do
  • they listened, responding to them rather than ignoring what they said or making demands.
(Roberts, 2009)

The Welsh Government has emphasised that raising literacy standards is one of its main priorities. The ‘Ready to Read’ report highlighted that Wales' poorest children are already struggling with language skills when they start primary school.

2 Moving from the early years to primary

The Welsh Government has emphasised that raising literacy standards is one of its main priorities. The ‘Ready to Read’ report highlighted that Wales' poorest children are already struggling with language skills when they start primary school.

Activity 3

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Read the adapted extract below from the TES (Times Educational Supplement) online about the ‘reading gap’ in primary schools and then answer the questions that follow.

Campaign to end ‘shameful’ reading gap in primary schools

Figure 2 Child reading a book

Around 1.5 million children will leave primary school struggling to read by 2025 unless urgent action is taken, according to new research published today by a campaign group set up to eradicate illiteracy.

The research suggests the UK economy could be £32bn worse off without action being taken to ensure 11-year-olds leave primary school as more competent readers. 

The UK economy could be £32bn worse off without action being taken to ensure that 11-year-olds leave primary school as more competent readers. 

One in four children growing up in poverty leaves primary school unable to read well.

‘In Britain, primary education for children has been compulsory for at least the last 150 years,’ said Dame Julia Cleverdon, chair of the Read On Get On campaign.

‘Yet to our shame, thousands of children leave primary school each year unable to read well enough to enjoy reading and to do it for pleasure, despite the best efforts of teachers around the country.’

(Ward, 2014)
  • What do you think is meant by ‘the reading gap’?
  • Why do you think the UK is so far down the international league tables?
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From the TES extract you have just read, it appears that the ‘reading gap’ is linked to the inequalities in society. The reasons for this are complicated, but may include factors such as:

  • limited access to books in the family
  • parents not having the time or resources to read to children.

If we are aware that there is a problem, we can work together to tackle the challenge.

This means parents, teaching assistants, teachers and all other support staff working together and sharing their expertise – in other words, you.

Two examples of positive action together are:

  • The Read On Get On campaign, which aims to ensure that every child born today will read well by the age of 11 in 2025 and in which teaching assistants have a key role to play.
  • A blog set up by a mum living in the USA, who shares her interest and expertise as a parent of a young child.

New ways to encourage reading

We can encourage children’s reading to reflect today’s world of new information and communication technologies.

New digital technologies have brought exciting opportunities for children of all ages, and digital books can be downloaded from apps onto computers and tablets.

Exciting apps can stimulate parent and child interactivity in online reading and book sharing. However, not everyone recognises the benefits of these new technologies and some parents have concerns that their child is spending too much time on a computer rather than reading a traditional book.

There is evidence, however, that digital books provide alternative ways of interacting and engaging children, parents and teachers although this is mixed in relation to the role that digital books can play in literacy development.

Digital books don’t always have the richness of vocabulary and grammar of print books, and parents don’t use as many helpful reading strategies while sharing digital books but concentrate more on IT skills. Nevertheless, they provide an exciting alternative way of interacting and engaging readers, teachers and parents. See, for example:

If you are interested in the debates about children and digital technologies and whether they are a good or a bad thing, you might like to enrol on Childhood in the Digital Age, a free Open University module on FutureLearn.

How did you learn to read?

Being able to make the links between your studies, your own experiences and what you do in the classroom is an important part of becoming a reflective practitioner and of developing your professional skills. The next activity asks you to think about what it is like to be a child learning to read.

More information can be found on the free OpenLearn course ‘Learning to teach; becoming a reflective practitioner’. openlearn/ education/ learning-teach-becoming-reflective-practitioner/ content-section-0?active-tab=description-tab

The next activity asks you to think about what it is like to be a child learning to read.

Activity 5

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Think back to when you were a child and how you learned to read.

  • How were you encouraged to read?
  • Did you enjoy reading or did you find it a struggle?
  • What sorts of books did you like or dislike?
  • Can you remember a favourite book?
  • Were books the only things you read?
  • Do you think girls read more than boys?
  • Do boys read different books from girls?
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Everyone will have their own answers to these questions. Your own experience of learning to read may affect how you encourage the children in your care to read.

Boys, girls and reading

In the following case study, Dewi and Harri are lively 8-year-old twins with an older sister, Lowri. She is 11 years old and an avid reader. Carys, their mother, is keen to foster a love of reading in the twins and is aware of how important it is to sit with them and read. This is easier said than done, not only because of lack of time, but also because the twins are very different.

Case study: Dewi and Harri learn to read

When he is in the mood, Harri loves to sit beside Carys and look at books. He is starting to read quite fluently and enjoys spelling out unknown words, as he has been taught in school. Harri's favourite book is Captain Underpants because it makes him laugh. This is a special time for both of them but Carys feels guilty about Dewi because he is not getting the same attention.

Dewi is a reluctant reader and appears to have little interest in books. He says about reading that ‘it’s boring’ and he never wants to unpack his school reader.

The boys’ teacher, Miss Evans, has reassured Carys that Dewi enjoys circle time, which often focuses on reading and literacy. Many primary schools use circle time where the focus is more on the children than the curriculum. The class sits with the teacher in a circle and ‘games’ are used to encourage cooperation, listening and speaking skills.

There are some general rules for circle time; for example:

  • Everyone has the right to be heard and a duty to listen.
  • There should be no ‘put-downs’. In the first stages it may be that the rule should be that all statements made should be positive.
  • Everyone has the right to pass.
  • Everything said should be confidential unless otherwise agreed.

It is a good way of developing peer relationships within the class. Very often a teaching assistant will also take part in this activity and they will model active listening skills for the children. Teaching assistants often position themselves next to or close by children who may need some additional support to benefit from circle time.

Described image
Figure 3 Dewi and Harri looking at books
Described image
Figure 4 Circle time

Miss Evans has started to use this time to encourage the children to talk about books they have read. The children also listen to each other reading in class, which is known as peer reading. These activities have made reading more of a social activity and Dewi’s peers are beginning to have an influence on his interest in reading. Miss Evans has also informed Carys that reading is not just about books and Dewi can develop his reading skills just as well on the computer, which he seems to enjoy more.

Dewi's teacher is confident that he will make progress in his reading because of the social interaction with his classmates and friends during circle time.

Carys is concerned about the difference in development and academic progress between Harri and Dewi. She does think that their happiness is the most important thing but the nagging concern over Dewi's progress or lack of it resurfaces in her thoughts quite often. She thinks that Dewi's current teacher Miss Evans is ‘a bit special’.

Carys believes that it is through a deep understanding of Dewi's needs and interests that Miss Evans has been able to work some kind of magic. Since being in her class, Dewi's attitude and approach to being at school are now much better. This can also be attributed to the additional support Dewi receives in school to develop his reading skills and interests. The school involved carys in discussions about Dewi's ongoing progress and raised concerns that he might have special educational needs.

Special educational needs affect a child’s ability to learn and this may include their reading and writing – for example, if they have dyslexia. If a child has special educational needs they may require an education and health care (EHC) plan. As a teaching assistant you will be in an ideal position to raise concerns and you will be able to request that the local authority carries out an EHC on behalf of a child in your care. You will work in conjunction with the parents, teacher and any other support workers in deciding whether to request an EHC. Visit the government website for more information about children with special educational needs.

Section 4 of this course looks at special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). You may find it helpful to study that section.

The gender gap: fact or fiction

Look back at the notes you made about your own experience of reading.

One of the questions was ‘Do you think girls read more than boys?’. Your own experiences are a good basis for understanding children, but it is important to avoid generalisations.

Much has been written about the ‘gender gap’ in primary education. Gender is the range of characteristics linked to the social differences between masculinity and femininity. There is evidence from research that supports the view that there is a difference between achievement in boys and girls.

Boys thought of as poor readers spent less time on or avoided reading in order to maintain credibility with their peers. Girls were happy to be seen reading easier books and to receive help from other experienced readers. By spending less time on reading, boys consequently fall further behind their peers so the problem becomes worse.

Some girls choose more challenging reading material for themselves. Contemporary books for girls in upper primary years include the Tracy Beaker series by Jacqueline Wilson. These and the plethora of vampire stories, such as the Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer, attract a pre-teen audience of able readers. Girls also share and discuss books much more readily, often forming reading groups similar to those that are popular with adults.

With growing awareness of the gender differences, efforts have been made to redress the balance. For example, a 2010 BBC TV series, Extraordinary School for Boys, explored different ways of engaging 11-year-old boys at primary school with learning, using concepts of risk and adventure.

By taking boys outside the classroom and involving them in learning through physical activities, the series attempted to harness that type of learning and channel it into learning within a classroom. It was led by Gareth Malone, who also challenged the stereotype that ‘boys don’t sing’ (The Choir: Boys Don’t Sing, broadcast in 2008). Gareth commented that ‘If school feels like a place where boys can take risks and push themselves and really challenge themselves, then they’ll be more engaged’.

Addressing the gender gap

Various strategies are suggested to try to reduce the gap in literacy between boys and girls, and in particular, to inspire boys to read and write.

  • give boys a distinct sense of purpose in each lesson and encourage collaboration.
  • ask pupils to read a book and then write a review of it to recommend the book to a younger child. This inspires them to choose appropriate books for other children, to read them carefully and to write careful reviews. They can also use their ICT and art skills to present their reviews well. This could also help to improve their own literacy skills
  • use good quality, yet inspiring, reading material during guided reading sessions and literacy lessons. The quality of the texts is important in order to provide good examples of writing, yet the subject matter also needs to grab the boys’ attention. e.g. spooky stories, or action stories, especially those with a boy protagonist.
  • encourage boys initially to read anything that they are interested in, whether it be magazines, stories, comics or instructions for games. Gradually, they will choose books that interest them.
  • present boys with inspirational stimulus, such as film clips, in order to provide the subject matter for a lesson. Use of role play and drama activities add to the interest and help to provide motivation for boys to want to read on, to find out what happens next in the story and to want to write their own versions of scenes from the story.

Reflect on your own practice and identify different strategies that work well for you. What are your experiences of the gender gap?

Literacy and reading in secondary school

If you are a teaching assistant in a secondary school, think about support materials that could be adapted for your own situation. For example:.


If you are not working in a secondary school but know children at this stage, try to find out more about what they are reading in relation to a specific subject and how vocabulary or key words are different from everyday language. An example from geography could include the following words: globalisation, urban and rural, spit, glacier, soil erosion, deforestation.

  • How does your school help with literacy in the secondary curriculum?
  • What words are linked to a secondary school subject that are different from everyday use?

Your answer will be dependent on your setting, and on whether your school has a policy in place to encourage reading and literacy. Whatever the policy is, that shouldn’t stop you from being creative and encouraging new ideas in children’s literacy.

What you have learned in this section:

  • Aspects of reading and literacy at three different stages of development. In the early years, how babies learn to interact with their parents or carers in early communication.
  • Issues in reading and literacy in primary school.
  • The challenges of reading and literacy that remain at secondary level.
  • The ‘reading gap’ is linked to inequalities in society, and measures are being implemented to overcome it. The ‘gender gap’ is where there are differences between boys and girls in their approaches to reading and literacy.
  • Think about how the topics in this section relate to your own practice: how making the links between your own experience, your studies and the setting in which you work helps you to become a reflective practitioner.

Section 2 quiz

Well done; you have now reached the end of Section 2 of Supporting children’s development, and it is time to attempt the assessment questions. This is designed to be a fun activity to help consolidate your learning.

There are only five questions, and if you get at least four correct answers you will pass the quiz.

If you are studying this course using one of the alternative formats, please note that you will need to go online to take this quiz.

I’ve finished this section. What next?

You can now choose to move on to Section 3, Behavioural management, or toone of the other sections.

If you feel that you’ve now got what you need from the course and don’t wish to attempt the quiz, please visit the Taking my learning further section. There you can reflect on what you have learned and find suggestions of further learning opportunities.

We would love to know what you thought of the course and how you plan to use what you have learned. Your feedback is anonymous and will help us to improve the courses that we offer.